The Harshness That We Found In Cambodia. Does Everyone Feel This Way?

Sign at the Killing Fields, Cambodia

Apologies in advance for this long post about Cambodia. I’ve waited a long time to write it so I plan to get it all out!

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs this week and many of our fellow travelling families have been writing about their time spent at the Killing Fields and S21 in Cambodia.

Besides two posts about the amazing temples at Angkor Wat which you can read here and here, and some links to Brittney’s hilarious Scambodia series (here, here and here), I haven’t written too much about Cambodia.

I’ve wanted to. I just couldn’t get straight in my head how I felt about it and if my memories reflect the reality of a nation practically destroyed by war and human depravity and yet one with, what must surely be, the most resilient people on earth. So in my usual feel-good way I gave you the funny stuff and not much else.

But today’s post will be different. Today you will find out the heartbreak that spending time in Cambodia can leave. And the reasons I want to go back.

My overwhelming memory of Cambodia is that we had to be constantly mentally alert.

From the moment we arrived at the land border we were trying to make sure we did not fall prey to scammers. Those bringing us from Thailand tried to strong-arm us to pay an extra visa fee by taking Gert and I into a room and leaving the children outside with our luggage. When we refused, they said if we didn’t get through the border ourselves “in time” our bus would leave without us! We were then dropped at the “fake” Visa office for the second attempt to part us from a few extra US$. We realised early on and insisted we would go to the “real” border with the gentleman running the show shouting after us that when we came back in half and hour the price would go up!

Once we were through the real border we had all kinds of trouble with the bus (I refused to get on the bus until someone confirmed it was the right bus and we wouldn’t have to pay again!! The children were embarrassed and once again the guy running the show said you come now or I won’t help you! I sat down and refused to budge and informed them I was tired of being scammed – magically a familiar face appeared and assured us this was the correct bus!)

We suspect we were punished for this show of independance as almost everyone else who came through the border with us was sent ahead in private cars and we had to wait several hours to be put on a bus for the next leg. It was here that I took this photo of the guy in charge who was none too happy!

On arrival there is bartering with tuk tuk drivers. Of course the bus stops out of town so you have no choice but to get a tuk tuk. The driver turns his nose up when you tell him where you are staying saying he can get you something better! We explain our hostel was paid for in advance so we cannot move to another. He is not happy though he keeps smiling.  This is standard Asia practice so no big deal.

When you get to your hotel the tuk tuk man wants to “escort” you the next day. You find out after you’ve used him and his friend for the day that he overcharged you (It’s only US$3 extra per tuk tuk – not much to us – but it makes a difference to a Cambodian.)

It irks me to be overcharged – there’s no getting around it.

At the temples there’s a heart-breaking array of small children trying to sell you souvenirs. You cannot relax your guard – if you time your exit from the temple wrongly you will be faced with small children and their mothers/sisters/aunts trying to sell you something. A scarf, a magnet, some postcards.

Anything – just please, PLEASE buy something from me so I can feed my child/send her to school/clothe her.

If you get lucky and only one person comes up to you it’s easy to buy a pretty scarf or a magnet. If you are unfortunate and end up surrounded by children you either have to buy something from each of them or be a cold-hearted bitch and buy nothing.

I swing between the two. I want to buy everything from the children. But we are travelling for a year and just can’t carry anything extra. We end up buying the odd bracelet from any young children but only if they aren’t in a group.

Let me tell you this. Until you have heard the wail of a Cambodian woman or a group of children pleading with you to buy their items you do not know what heartbreak is. There’s something about the sound that tugs at your heartstrings. I suspect if you are a parent, especially if you are a mother, you will find this devastating as you scurry off to get into your tuk tuk and escape this sound of sheer poverty.

Of course your tuk tuk driver will choose this exact moment to need to adjust something on his tuk tuk or have a drink of water. He will not drive off and rescue you from the keening mob.

He knows how much these children need the dollar or two that you don’t want to part with. Those couple of dollars that won’t even buy you a coffee or a block of chocolate in your own country. His own children may even be doing something similar elsewhere today with their mother.

For the lack of education in this country, Cambodians are smart and they know what they have to do to survive.

We learn later that even the 6 year olds selling us items at the temples pay protection money to local authorities to allow them to sell. Corruption is rife in this country. It sickens me to my very core.

During our days at the temples we are offered books for sale for $1. They are thick books, colourful and look full of great information. Stuff we aren’t really learning as we don’t have a guide to take us around the temples. (We want one but we don’t know how much we should pay or what the rules are so we go without.) We resist but the more they offer them the more we think we should get one, read it while we are here and then leave it in our hostel for the next person. After all it’s only a dollar, right?


We go to buy one. Confirm the price is $1. He says yes. I get out my dollar. Only to discover it is $1 for LOOKING!! Just to browse through his book! To buy it – $10.

Are you shitting me? Is this temple really a fucking library?

We don’t buy the book.

And as we walk away the price drops to $5, then to $3.

The rest of our time at the temples passes the same. Buy this, buy that, please, please, please, just $1 for a book etc, etc.

We have a second go with a book seller hours later who absolutely promises us that the book is $1. I use my fingers to indicate one. He says yes, yes.

I get out my dollar. No, no, no he shakes his head. Not one, elewan.

What the fuck is elewan? We look weirdly at each other. Then we realise it.

The bloody book is ELEVEN dollars!! Elewan = $11!!

I have no words but I am pissed off enough that I will not buy another book until months later in Vietnam where we are amused to discover counterfeit Lonely Planet Guides for $10!!

Just sell me the bloody book for the $5 you really want for it. I would have paid $5 but I’m so tired of Cambodians trying to get an extra dollar or two out of me by day three that I start refusing on principle.

I’ve had to barter over buying bottles of water. They are $1 each. Just over the border in Thailand I can get 3 for that. It’s not about the money. It’s about the way they go about it. As I said – relax for a second – don’t ask the price of something – and you’ll end up forking over 3 times the money that you should.

If we were here on a two week holiday and then jetting home to our jobs we would just pay and I guess that’s what they count on. We are definitely a minority that are travelling long term and really need to watch our cash.

Cambodian children seem very sexually aware. They are not afraid to put it out there. Several instances spring to mind to illustrate this.

We decided to all get a massage – Gert and I had foot massages. Britt, Kate and Jono opted for body massages. Jono is trying to improve his massage skills so he can get money out of me so we let him have a turn.

They take the children upstairs. Then they bring them back down. Luckily for us. And Jono.

The entire time they are working they are asking us questions about the children.

  • How old are they?
  • What about school?
  • Do the girls have boyfriends?
  • How old is Jono?
  • Will we save him for them?
  • Will we bring him back when he is 15 so they can hook up?


By now Jono is talking off his head so we know he is incredibly uncomfortable with all of this. He tells me later his massage was getting very personal and she kept touching his “man-boobs”. I had no idea or I could have saved him!! It leaves a bad taste.

Weeks later we are at the beach in Sihanoukville. The kids on the beach want to play with Jono but it degenerates to touching and groping and he can’t cope. We hoped he could play with kids his own age – no such luck.

The girls come up to me and ask if they can be his girlfriend! I say no but they don’t let up for hours. They ask me to bring him back when he is 15.

I know by now that every young person here says this. They are geared up to be married. They need to get it done early – I suspect they see Westerners as a ticket to a better life. And they are right – but it’s shocking to see it so young.

I’m not used to it. I don’t like it. As the target, Jono LOATHES it.

On the beach in Sihanoukville after a nasty sunburn we let our guard down for the morning and allow two women to lather us in Aloe Vera. They give us a pedicure, do some hideous threading of my underarm (dear god don’t EVER let anyone do that to you!), give us a massage, paint the girls nails etc etc.

The bill after a couple of hours of pampering? $150!!!!!!!!!!

Holy shit!!! Gert bartered her down to $100 – we nearly died of shock! It was particularly interesting to note the speed with which these women managed to get off the beach once we had paid them. Scammed again!

Much of Cambodia’s roads are unsealed. There’s red dust everywhere. It is particularly fine dust. You can make out the exact shoe print and often the writing on the sole from shoes if you look in the dust as you walk around.

There’s rubbish everywhere. Piled up in vacant blocks of land. Floating on top of creeks. I wondered more than once if this is caused by locals or visitors. Whether tourism was having an effect that Cambodia does not have the infrastructure to handle.

Were we contributing to this by being here?

While in Siam Reap there were power outages for hours at a time during the day and night. The receptionist at our hostel seemed to know when the power would come back on so we assumed this was some kind of load shedding. It was particularly hot during these black out periods. We had no internet either – talk about first world problems.

We ate dinner by candlelight during one such period with an amazing tuk tuk driver named Sovann who was referred to us by another traveller. We practically begged him to take us somewhere local for dinner.

Sovann charged us a decent amount, provided ice cold water for us during the day and explained about some of the places we were visiting. He explained that he had not had a tuk tuk fare for 3 days and his wife was starting to worry.

Common understanding is that most Cambodians live on $1 per day or less. (Remember those ladies who hit the jackpot and got $100 out of us on the beach?)

Imagine having a wife and children to feed and knowing you hadn’t worked for a few days and had no income. There is no social security here. No government support. You don’t work, your family doesn’t eat.

Considering we paid $160 for a pass to visit Angkor Wat for a few days it is shocking how little these people have. Hundreds of people visit Angkor Wat every day – it’s a license to print money. Money that should be going to those who need it most.

Sovann also explained that school goes in at different times. The small kids go in the morning and the big kids go in the afternoon. We thought of all those little kids in the afternoons at the temple saying they had no money for school. We wondered if they had done morning lessons and were now out earning money for the family.

We wondered a lot while we were in Cambodia.

I will write a post soon about our time at the Killing Fields and S21.

Let me say now though that those places are absolutely shocking. Tears were shed, even by the kids, the day we realised just what horrific things the Cambodian people have been through.

Gert and I grew up with talk of the Khmer Rouge on TV but our children did not. Vague TV news reports did nothing to imprint just what went on. I have vivid memories of an Australian being kidnapped and murdered in Cambodia. For some reason I know his name was David Wilson. I have no idea why I remember something from almost 20 years ago.

There are barely any old people in Cambodia. It’s a shocking thing that you really don’t notice until you discover that 25% of Cambodia’s population were murdered under the Khmer Rouge. Once you realise that everyone over the age of 40 survived this horrific time, you can’t help but wonder.

Was our tuk tuk man in Phnom Penh a soldier under Pol Pot? Or was he a prisoner? Just how many family members did he lose (because when a quarter of your population is murdered just about EVERYONE loses a family member.)

What about that hotel owner who is trying to learn how to make porridge from us? Did he work in the fields, lose his wife and children? Or did he dob in his neighbour and help the regime? Did he man the gates at S21 and watch almost every single person who arrived there die?

These are not the cheery thoughts you’d like to be having as you wander around the local market.  But they are thoughts that pop up because only a handful of people have ever been tried for war crimes during the Khmer Rouge times.  Pol Pot was not tried and died a natural death.  Everyone who committed an atrocity is still wandering around freely. They are still alive.

Imagine a quarter of the population of your own country were suddenly gone.  Imagine if a quarter of the teachers in your kid’s school were carted off never to return.

Imagine you are a doctor/lawyer/professor and suddenly all your possessions are removed and you are sent to work in a field.  With no training.  No food.  No way out.

And your only crime was being an educated person.

Now imagine how your country would recover from such an event.  Who would teach the young people how society should work?  How would education work if there was hardly anyone left to teach?  How would your nation cope if every single person had seen family members murdered, babies killed, heard the screams of those people who perished?

When you visit Cambodia and you know the history of what happened here, you can’t help but be astounded at how friendly the people are.  How resilient they are. Even the guy at the temple trying to get an imaginary figure of Elewan dollars out of you will do so with a look in his eye that says he is sorry but it’s what he has to do.

There’s very little blame from the survivors.  They just seem to get on with the job of living.  There’s smiles as they scam you out of your US$.  Helpful people all too willing to point you wherever you need to go.

And then there’s the people who are trying to do some good here.  We were bummed that we didn’t get to volunteer in Cambodia when we were there.  Unfortunately some type of illness set in after a few days that confined all 5 of us to the bathroom.  We only had 12 days there and it was not long enough to do all that we wanted to do.

There are NGO’s in Cambodia, monks, single foreign people, backpackers and local Cambodian people trying to make a difference in this country.  There are travellers who make donations and those that get in and teach Cambodian children or just visit for a few hours to play with them.  There is so much good being done here – this country deserves so much more.

I’ve thought about Cambodia most days since we left.  I wondered about their atheletes at the recent Olympic games and what they thought of London, so different from their own home.  I think we missed our chance to make a difference to someone’s life when we didn’t volunteer.  We missed the chance to get to know the locals better and to really understand what it is like for them.

As I’ve looked through our photos to put into this post I’ve remembered all the awesome things we did in Cambodia and the great things we saw.  Those things don’t quite match up with the feelings I have when I think of our time there.  I know it was fabulous.  I want next time to be better.

When we return it will be with a different mindset.  A bit less stress and a bit more relaxed since we know what’s in store for us.  We will smile and suck it up next time the price changes from the first offer.  We will volunteer our time.  We will enquire in a far more indepth way about our friend the tuk tuk driver and his family.

We will investigate just how much it costs to send a Cambodian child to school and find ways to contribute to this education.

I am thinking about taking a group to Cambodia next year.  Not to live it up in a 5 star hotel but to stay in Hostels, talk to the local people, see the poverty first hand and give others the chance to experience the changes inside that we have.  Maybe we will take people who wouldn’t be brave enough to visit the real Cambodia on their own.  Those that just need a little hand holding to find out what a fabulous way this can be to travel.

At some point we will raise money through this website.

Whether it be by selling t-shirts, donating proceeds from an eBook or any other number of things.  Perhaps it will be a straight out request for donations that will be delivered directly to the hands of those that need it most rather than sending it through donation channels.

I hope you’re ready when the time comes to ask.  We will need such a small amount of support from many readers to make a real difference.

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The Harshness That We Found In Cambodia. Does Everyone Feel This Way? — 18 Comments

  1. As an old Asia hand, I read your post with great interest. I often warn people that they have to be “ready” for Asia. I tell them about the filth, the touts, the abject poverty. And then they ask me why I love Asia. I tell them that once you get to know Asia, you no longer see it through our “developed world” filter. Somehow, the trash, the touts, etc. become just another part of life. And at this point you find the underbelly of Asia, which is a kind of inner light powered by the attitude of Asians, who have mastered the art of living in the present moment. Despite the poverty, lack of education, lack of sanitary conditions, the incessant corruption and all the the horrible things you have written about, Asians live with grace and seem to be able to be happy despite their struggles. Interestingly, I spend several months each year in Asia and I am rarely approached by a tout any more. I think the kids especially have a fine tuned awareness of who is a “newbie” and they leave us old hands alone. It will be interesting to see how your view of Asia develops.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..PHOTO: Bayon Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia Contain More Than 200 Giant Buddha HeadsMy Profile

    • Hey Barb. Thanks for that. You are so right. Grace is exactly how they deal with all the things we are just not used to. It’s so interesting that touts don’t come up to you. I think the one standout thing that I can’t deal with is government corruption. It’s one thing for someone to try to get that extra dollar out of you on a tuk tuk ride. It’s quite another for someone on the border to charge you to expedite your way through the border, then hand your passport to an official through the window who is obviously playing the game too. It infuriates me. We plan to visit often. I too am interested to see how we change and also how Asia changes over the years.

    • Interesting website Lauren. I struggle with the whole “don’t buy anything from children” theme. It reminds me of the Hoo-Haa in the 80’s over Nike and all those other companies who were having products made using child labour. There is evidence that once they refused to use child labour, the children were worse off and forced onto the streets to beg. Not working, didn’t get them into school. It just got them a more high risk way to make income for the family. It’s so hard to resist the specific wail that goes up when they see you coming!

  2. Thanks for writing this honest account. One of the things that infuriates me most is the rip off/scam artists in Asia. Cambodia was a really hard country for me as well. Seeing children begging on the street was heartbreaking. My husband was even propositioned from a young girl who could not have been older than ten. Definitely a hard country, but still worth the effort.
    Amy @Worldschooladventures recently posted..Our New ProjectMy Profile

    • Yes Amy, it’s so worth the effort. I hope that things will improve for the country and the people. Can you imagine one of your children having to proposition western tourists? Just horrible!

    • And you are one of those brave creatures who comments anonymously on the internet and yet with nothing of worth to say. And I thought the hate mail would appear on my pic of Robert!!

    • Thanks Nate. So glad you introduced us to Sovann – was great to learn more about Cambodian life while we were there.

  3. I can not stress how much I appreciated the information I received through the child safe website. I was so sheltered and naive before I went to Cambodia that I couldn’t grasp why such things as trafficking children for sex would exist and guesthouses use the child safe sign as marketing.

    We did hire a guide and a driver for 3 days, it ended up costing around $150 and well worth it. I can give you the name of the guide and how we found him. We were also on a holiday so we factored in the cost of having someone “fix” for us, we stayed in beautiful hotels removed from the hostels and guesthouses, too.

    I hope you go back. Despite the poverty, the trash, and the corruption there is a sense of pride, strength, and heart in Cambodia that changed my life.

    You weren’t picked out because you were a “noob” either (people just need to avoid their keyboards if they don’t have anything to add to the conversation) at the border or by the tuk-tuk drivers. We thought that was the issue with us but found out later they try to scam even the most seasoned travelers.
    Laura recently posted..My Very Unfavorite Word is–My Profile

    • We’ll definitely be going back though we are through with big hotels and prefer to stay in hostels close to the locals these days. I was impressed how many local people are represneted on the child safe website. That’s surely a sign that over time those practices will stop. We know we weren’t singled out – everyone was getting the same offer we were. I took the ‘noob’ comment to be far more of an insult than that! But I love hate mail so it’s all good!!

  4. I have heard so much about the scammers in Vietnam and Cambodia, but it’s another thing to read about that here, to happen to a blogger I “know.” But what’s alarming is your observation about the children there. Sexual abuse of children happens a lot in touristy places, and I know some organizations are doing something about it. It still seems not enough, given your experience!
    Freya recently posted..Inca Trail Day 2 – Dead Woman’s PassMy Profile

    • Hey Freya – thanks for stopping by. All the stories are spot on I think. I thought maybe people exaggerated but I’m afraid not. As awful as parts were it was one of the parts of our travel that specifically changed how we viewed the world and those who don’t really have much. I can’t wait to go back.

  5. So glad you reposted this and so well written. I didn’t read it before.
    Unfortunatley most t-shirts would be made in some unethical factory but if you’re going back I’d say give the money straight into the hands of those families and definitely skip any government organisation.

    • You’re right Tamara. Next time we go back we’ll definitely make a difference at the base level. A small amount of money goes a long way in Cambodia.

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